We got word Thursday that the NVL has canceled its 2017 season with an eye on 2018. The NVL had events scheduled this season for Hermosa Beach, Calif., August 10-12; Virginia Beach, Va., August 24-26; and Port St. Lucie, Fla., September 14-16.
VolleyballMag.com correspondent Travis Mewhirter played in the NVL season-opener earlier this month (and, as it turns out, its only event of the season) that coincided with the World Series of Beach Volleyball, and has played in a few AVP qualifiers this season.
Mewhirter first wrote the following column — which we posted earlier Friday — and then had a question-and-answer with the NVL’s Al-B Hanneman that follows.
On Thursday afternoon, the NVL announced that it has canceled the remainder of the 2017 season, just two weeks prior to its scheduled event in Hermosa Beach.
What a change of pace this is.
Just a few months ago, Leonard Armato ignited a firestorm. There he was, partnering up with the NVL, allowing the National Volleyball League to join the World Series of Beach Volleyball.
There was Kerri Walsh Jennings, side by side with Armato, and the NVL had to be counting its blessings as rumors abounded that Walsh, the greatest beach volleyball player of all time, the three-time gold medalist, the 6-feet of sunshine –- that Kerri Walsh –- would be playing for the NVL.
There was the AVP contract boycotts. Casey Jennings held out. Billy Kolinske held out. Walsh-Jennings held out. Robbie Page held out.
An 11th-hour meeting between AVP CEO Donald Sun and various players inspired some confidence, as every player at the meeting exited with an abundance of sunny social-media posts.
But still, nobody knew what to make of the AVP, amid all the turmoil, and the NVL, with its financially savvy partner and the supposed backing of the GOAT.
Now we know: The AVP is the last man standing.
Walsh Jennings did plan on playing on the NVL this year, according to Al Hannemann, the founder of the Tour, and Armato did partner with the Tour, but it wasn’t enough to breathe life back into the NVL. Not yet at least, and I do hope that when it was announced that there are plans for a 2018 season, those words come to fruition.
Frankly, it sucks. It sucks to see the NVL go down, because as anybody with a basic, fundamental grasp of economics will tell you, competition breeds performance, forces improved products.
The AVP now has a complete monopoly over beach volleyball in the United States of America, and while I think the AVP is doing a magnificent job, I never want to see a monopoly in control of an entire industry.
It sucks because there are a lot of good volleyball players on the NVL who probably rely on that income over the summer, and now they don’t have that.
It sucks because, honestly, the NVL is really, really fun, and treats the players like superstars. It provides a phenomenal event for fans, and seems to have a solid grassroots system in place, which this sport needs to scale as it continues to grow to never before seen heights.
It sucks because if you’re reading this, you likely love beach volleyball, and to see 50 percent of the domestic tours in this country go down for the season is distressing.
This isn’t altogether surprising.
The NVL has been notoriously rocky, canceling events, rearranging the schedule at the last minute, delaying payments, delaying them again – “the check is in the mail!”
But they do always pay. Always. That’s worth mentioning.
No checks will be mailed for the remainder of the year. Though the initial wording of the announcement suggests that the NVL “will be back stronger than ever,” it will take some convincing for that to ring true to any player, fan or sponsor.
I hope it comes back. I really do, for all of the aforementioned reasons.
But for now, we must wonder: What next?
Immediately, I can’t really say much has changed in the beach volleyball landscape.
I don’t know a single volleyball player who looked to the NVL as the premier tour, and I think the recent exodus of the NVL’s top players –- Eric Zaun, Jeff Samuels, Travis Schoonover, Piotr Marciniak, to name a few –- is a testament to that.
When I spoke with Samuels over the spring about why he was choosing to make the move from the NVL to the AVP, he said it had nothing to do with Hannemann or the magnitude of the events or the pay.
He wanted to play the best.
The AVP was where the best played.
End of story.
Now it’s where everybody will play.
Q&A with the NVL’s Al-B Hannemann
Mewhirter interviewed the NVL founder and CEO on Friday.
Mewhirter: I guess just kind of walk me through the 2017 season and sort of how we got to the point to where we are now, just from the off-season timeline to yesterday’s announcement.
Hannemann: Going into the 2017 season we felt like we were getting a lot of traction. It is our seventh season. We’ve had a lot of grinding and learning and I feel really confident on what we’ve been able to provide the players and fans and I did feel like at some point we needed an opportunity to scale and offer more. I felt like our social and digital side of our business was growing, our content was very dynamic and different and media outlets were very interested in pro beach volleyball and the appeal of it. So we had a lot of conversations going, and one of the conversations I had in 2016 was with Leonard and he felt like he needed to have more events, wanted to really aggregate all the different volleyball entities and organizations because as you know it’s segregated and it’s never been brought together and that’s really the biggest problem with our sport.
So it was a healthy conversation, and we kept saying “OK, well maybe there’s some sort of collaboration.” Leonard expressed his desire to run the biggest event in the United States with the best players in the world and was not interested in starting a Tour but he thought he could enhance our tour and we thought we could help him. So in February we began having more serious talks about it and we decided it would be a good idea to have an event together and then really focus on ’18 seeing as he only had Long Beach. Knowing that Leonard is the best in the business from a sales perspective and his vision for the game, it was great. I learned a lot from him as a player and working with him seeing how he’s relentless and I love that about him.
We had a very good Long Beach event with him and we learned a lot, met a lot of people in major brands, and my partners and investors were there and their eyes were wide open. It was awesome to have that to see how awesome the sport could be.
Backing up in the time frame with Kerri [Walsh-Jennings] to January, February and March, she unfortunately had her own issues that she was dealing with and we basically wanted to find a way to give her a place to play like we always do. We’ve been very good friends with her and Casey [Jennings] that they wanted to support my effort and with Leonard it was kind of a nice synergy so that’s kind of where we got to where we are today, and with what happened in Long Beach, how successful that event was, my new partners were wondering ‘Why aren’t we doing bigger scale events? Why aren’t we bringing in other elements? Why aren’t you doing Preakness? Why aren’t you doing Las Vegas? Why aren’t you doing pre-existing events?’
That was my model. They were really hesitant on what our current model was and with this current opportunity with the World Series of Beach Volleyball and with Leonard, it seemed like Hermosa [Beach] was a home run, you know, network television with Kerri playing, giving the players the opportunity to play with and against Kerri, it was really exciting and it has been until this past weekend when, unfortunately, Kerri got injured and it kind of changed the tide.
For a number of reasons, ABC unfortunately wanted to have Kerri, and not that that was their sole motivation to be involved in beach volleyball, but Kerri pulls more weight than anybody in the sport, and when that happened, a lot of the footprints and the interest and the excitement, unfortunately, really changed.
So I had meetings all week and my team, we talked all the way through to find out what can we do, can we still run events, and I was excited to run events so the players can still play and keep giving them a platform so they can keep playing but the reality is that it costs a lot of money to do that and they basically said we need to focus on 2018 because we cannot do smaller scale events anymore; we work too hard, the players deserve to have more opportunities and we can provide that but this year, it’s too late.
I was really disappointed that this was going to have to happen but I’m really fortunate that basically I got to learn how important it was to have a better plan. Now that we know what we can do and the momentum that we have, big brands are going to support this sport. That isn’t necessarily our model because our academies are doing so well and our junior tour is doing so well, you need those grassroots programs to push it up into the future and everything to have a sustainable sport, but it’s still very expensive and we have money we just don’t have the capacity to keep going at this pace. We need to upgrade everything and we’re going to.
The good news is that all the momentum we’ve had the last couple weeks – we’re in constant meetings, we’re pitching, with or without tournaments this year. As you know, everything is a year ahead.
Again, it’s an interesting time for our sport, and it’s growing so fast that, to go back to your question, we grew too fast, the opportunities were too big, and we need more time to do what the NVL is capable of doing, so we had to take a step back to take two steps forward, and I know that’s a cliché but it’s very true.
I have a business to run and it’s frustrating that I do so much to make sure that we can keep growing and I just love our players so much that that’s the hardest part for me is the players, to think that they’re not able to play, even if it is just for three tournaments, I know how much it means to me to play and how much it means to them to play and luckily everyone is understanding and we gotta stick by it and I want them to play wherever they can play, and when the time comes to bring events back next year, hopefully that’ll make sense for them.
Mewhirter: You mentioned that Leonard wasn’t interesting in starting a tour, but he sort of wanted beach volleyball’s powers at be to sort of collaborate and work together. Have you guys ever tried to form a relationship with the AVP? When we talked in the off-season, you mentioned cooperative scheduling, but have you guys ever tried to operate under one umbrella, cohesively?
Hannemann: I have. I like Donald (Sun). I think he’s a nice guy. I know we have mutual respect for each other. He has a plan for his business, I have a plan for my business. I 100-percent feel that the sport will grow faster if the major stakeholders in the sport if they can find a way to even be cooperative on scheduling, but as a pro beach volleyball business to schedule events based on what your other tour operators are doing or what the FIVB is doing. It’s super challenging. A lot of times they might have to run events the same weekend we do. We purposely look at the schedule the best we can and none of our events this year would conflict with any major events, hoping players would be able to play on both tours.
That didn’t end up being the case, but I’ll always try to do that. I’m not saying the AVP wouldn’t try to do that, and they have a business to run and I respect that they need to do and Donald needs to do the best thing for his tour, so again, I think everybody wants the sport to grow. It’s just really hard. People don’t understand how difficult it is to get everybody to work together. I’m not against it but again, you have to run your business however is best for you.
Mewhirter: You’ve mentioned 2018, and you’re excited about it and your partners are pretty excited about it, so I’m presuming you and Leonard have plans to continue working together because I know he has plans to have three events next year, correct? Is the NVL and the World Series and Leonard – are you guys partners for all three of those events at the moment?
Hannemann: It’s definitely a real partnership. It’s not like we did this for some publicity stunt. That would make no sense. The idea is that we’re stronger together, all of us are, the major stakeholders. Leonard and I have been working closely to have more events with more prize money. I don’t even remember the last time there was this kind of plan in place –- it’s not just about the prize money. It’s about penetrating more of the market, finding events that make sense because we need bigger scale events and we’re ready. Leonard is definitely the visionary –- we need him in the sport.
He’s a big deal. He’s a big deal in finding the brands that make all this possible. So we definitely are bringing the other elements that are needed to have a successful tour and to be solid partners, for Leonard and anyone else we end up working with.
Mewhirter: I got an email from the director of The Motherlode last night, and he was saying that beach volleyball still has a lot of cool events going on with the Motherlode and King of the Mountain and a couple others like Seaside. I know that in 2012, you guys partnered up with the Motherlode and that was one of your events, have you thought about re-establishing those ties? I’m not saying you could cobble together an emergency 2017 season but that just kind of popped in my head when I got the email that it wouldn’t be the worst plan to partner up with the Motherlode and Seaside and all these other events with, as you said your business model is to host events with built-in crowds, and that just seemed like something I’d be curious about.
Hannemann: We’ve done it before, and they’ve worked to a point. Again, at the end of the day, I think it’s sticking to our business model and what we’re trying to accomplish and what are these other great, local, long-time events trying to accomplish. We always want to have an affiliation in some capacity but we’re thinking bigger now. We want to support those guys however we can but we want to stand on our own.
When I talk about built-in events I’m talking Preakness, food and wine festivals, those types of festival-type events, like the World Series of Beach Volleyball. You need music, you need these different types of lifestyle elements that can bring new elements, lifestyle elements to beach volleyball.
And that’s what my partners and I are excited about: creating new and exciting events that can really expand the fanbase and bring the new fans to the sport. Again, I hear what you’re saying and those guys are all friends of mine and I love what they do, but we have to really stick with our plan and that’s what’s going to make this thing a lot bigger for everybody.
Mewhirter: When you talked to the players, obviously their emotions were very high because this is a lot of their livelihoods, so what was their reaction when you talked to them? Were they confident that 2018 was going to happen?
Hannemann: I think that the initial reaction was that they’re bummed, you know, they want to play. They’ve been super supportive but unfortunately they had to pick one side or the other and that’s going to cause you to be more emotional. Whenever you pick sides or cheer for your favorite sports team and they don’t end up winning that game, you’re emotional, and that’s how I was feeling when I spoke to some of the players, and I can’t tell you the amount of positive responses I’ve had and how thankful. That’s the thing that keeps me going. They realize how difficult this is and we’ve always told them what we’re doing and what’s positive and what’s challenging and I think that openness is what’s kept everyone on the right side of the track.
Moving forward, they motivate me to want to make this better for them. If they want to go and play in other events and do whatever they need to do, I’m going to cheer for them. I’m going to watch them online and I’m going to cheer for them, as I do with all of my friends that are playing, wherever they’re playing.
They motivate me. I’m just so close to it that I want to help them and they do count on some of this, Travis, they do count on some of the prize money but it’s not their livelihood. It’s, unfortunately, still a hobby for beach volleyball players. How many people are actually making a living? I don’t want to get on the soap box about what’s going on but we’ve always told our players that you need to earn a living not make a living. You need to go out and help the tour operators grow the sport and that’s what’s so great about people that get to experience playing with us is that we try to involve everyone in the whole process and it’s just more of an experience and not a livelihood and we need to try to change that.
Mewhirter: I know you have a busy day so I’ll let you go here soon, but what will the next couple months look like for you? You’ve mentioned looking ahead to 2018, so what do the next couple months look like with your schedule and what you’ll be doing?
Hannemann I am in constant meetings, traveling, going to different events. I got invited to a lot of different events that I haven’t been able to go to in the past because of our busy schedule where there are a lot of brands that are interested, and we’ve never been closer to getting the sponsors that we need, so I’m really excited about that.
I’ll be focusing the next three months and this is where we turn the corner. I’m thankful for all the support, we’re not dead, we’re definitely the opposite. We have new life. Like I said, it’s a temporary setback, but I’ve never been more confident in where we’re at, and all we gotta do is wait and see how it turns out.
I’m not asking for people to take a side, I never have. I’m going to keep working as hard as I can and now I have better help around me to help us get there.